Adam Smith and Angels with Dirty Faces

moral approbation compassion moral improvement moral character

Ali Motamedi and Daniel B. Klein for AdamSmithWorks

Motamedi and Klein provide a character study of Adam Smith's example of a bigoted Roman Catholic who, overcome by compassion, saves Protestants instead of killing them during the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre in 1572. Drawing on Smith, the authors suggest that virtue involves a dynamic between self-approbation and upward vitality like that seen in the Roman Catholic who overcomes his bigotry.

 "...our estimation of a person’s conduct or character involves a consideration of the person’s own self-approbation. When a person does not fully approve of his own good actions, that counts against him."

Wednesday, April 24, 2024
In the later part of 16th century, France was beset by civil wars between Roman Catholics and Calvinist Protestants known as Huguenots. The St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre refers to a series of mob attacks perpetrated by French Catholics against Huguenots beginning August 24, 1572, St. Bartholomew’s Day. Centuries later, Pope John Paul II condemned the massacre, saying, “Christians did things [during the massacre] which the Gospel condemns” (Pope John Paul II, 1997). Estimates of the number of Huguenots murdered vary, but in Paris alone the modern estimate is 3,000.
Adam Smith draws a scene in The Theory of Moral Sentiments (TMS):
A bigoted Roman Catholic, who, during the massacre of St. Bartholomew, had been so overcome by compassion, as to save some unhappy protestants, whom he thought it is his duty to destroy, would not seem to be entitled to that high applause which we should have bestowed upon him, had he exerted the same generosity with complete self-approbation. We might be pleased with the humanity of his temper, but we should still regard him with a sort of pity which is altogether inconsistent with the admiration that is due to perfect virtue. (TMS, 177–78.13)
The example illustrates that “with the most serious and earnest desire of acting so as to deserve approbation, we may mistake the proper rules of conduct, and thus be misled by that very principle which ought to direct us” (176.12). When we mistake the proper rules of conduct, we develop “a false notion of duty” (178.13). And Smith writes: “False notions of religion are almost the only causes which can occasion any very gross perversion of our natural sentiments” (176.12).
The larger point of the example of the Catholic saving unhappy Protestants is not, however, that religion can give us a false notion of duty. The larger point is: “No action can properly be called virtuous, which is not accompanied with the sentiment of self-approbation” (178.13). The bigoted Roman Catholic lacks self-approbation when he desists from his notion of duty. His act of saving Protestants conflicts with his notion of duty. Smith says we cannot give him “the admiration that is due to perfect virtue.”
We do not disagree with Smith. Still, the scene is moving, as it shows conflict within the actor. Speaking for ourselves, we find that it does inspire some admiration for our “bigoted Roman Catholic,” for he experiences conflict and, in the moment, does the right thing. He turns in the direction of righteousness.
Let us call the protagonist of Smith’s scene Luc. We consider some variations of the scene, calling the protagonist in each Luc. But the Lucs differ, so we need to number them.

Five Lucs
Suppose you were to write a play or a movie script. You would need to decide on characters to include. And, for each character, you would need to decide that character’s character, as well as the character’s character arc.
Here we consider five possible characters for Luc, only one of which would be the character called “Luc” in any actual dramatization. The Luc of Smith’s scene is Luc 4. We rank the five Lucs in virtue, with 1 most and 5 least virtuous:
Luc 1 > Luc 2 > Luc 3 > Luc 4 > Luc 5
The Lucs will be differentiated to distinguish aspects of virtue. But every Luc is a Frenchman and a devoted member of the Roman Catholic Church. The Catholic nobility of his community has endorsed violence against the Huguenots. He can respond in a number of ways. The various scenarios explore the regard—the blame, the praise, the respect—which Luc is due depending on his course of action and on his initial bigotry—or lack thereof—against the Huguenot population.
Luc 4 is the initially bigoted Roman Catholic we have already met. He goes along with the call to massacre Huguenot residents and initially participates. During the massacre, however, Luc 4 is overcome by compassion and saves some of the Huguenots rather than kill them. The change of heart and change of mind shows an internal struggle and renders Luc 4 upwardly vital. That feature engages the spectator and is worthy of respect. But Luc 4’s initial willingness to participate in the massacre detracts from our estimation of him. And reflective of that inconsistency is Smith’s point that he cannot fully approve of his own compassionate action, since it goes against his loyalties to the Catholic leaders. Luc 4 reconsiders his initial sense of “the proper rules of conduct” and overcomes his bigotry, at least in the moment.
Consider a Luc 5, who is initially bigoted. But, unlike Luc 4, he stays that way. He does not come to his senses. He sticks to his false notion of duty. He does not show upward vitality. There is much to blame in Luc 5’s conduct. One cannot fault him for inconsistency or irresolution, however. Indeed, his conduct might involve an atrocious resolve. Smith noted that self-command always has a certain “lustre” (241.11).
Let’s jump upward to Luc 1, at the top of our ranking. Luc 1, too, is a devout Roman Catholic, but not bigoted. He opposes the massacre wholeheartedly. Because his character is known to leaders in the Catholic community, those plotting the massacre do not inform him; they expect that he would oppose the plot and move to stop them. Were he to know, he might even blow the whistle on the plot.
When the plot takes place, Luc 1 is astonished and horrified, and, in the mayhem, he does all he can to save some of the Huguenots. Luc 1 does not have any internal struggle regarding the matter, and he subsequently denounces the plot as inhumane and entirely contrary to core doctrines of the Church. He does all this with complete self-approbation.
These scenes of Luc 1 do not display inner tension. The scenes provide character portrayal, but we do not see character arc. Luc 1 has the aspect of a saint, and saints do not make the most engaging protagonists in a story. Luc 1’s actions evince virtue but not upward vitality. His independence and strength of mind evoke admiration and inspire emulation. But he does not exhibit anguish. He does not surprise himself. There is no turn toward righteousness, for he is already righteous. 
Next is Luc 2. Like Luc 1, Luc 2 is initially non-bigoted, and, when he learns of the plot, he sees it as abhorrent and entirely contrary to the Church. Luc 2 differs from Luc 1 in his dedication to the Catholic nobility, some of whom have been his benefactors and have become personal friends. When Luc 2 learns of the plot, he is torn. The Catholic leaders sincerely believe that their preference in the struggle over the succession of the French crown is best for France. Moreover, they believe that a religiously fractured France would destroy social hierarchy and the basis for social cohesion and would in time lead to large scale civil war, the weakening of France, and possibly loss of territory to the Habsburgs or other foreign powers. Best to nip internal division in the bud, they believe.
Luc 2 never had a hand in the plot. When it is afoot, he is unsure of what to do. He agonizes, but in the moment acts to save some of the Huguenots. But even then, he is unsure of himself. Though not as exemplary as Luc 1’s conduct, Luc 2’s actions are still worthy of our respect and admiration. On the other hand, his upward vitality represents personal reflection and growth and makes the account of Luc 2’s conduct more moving and dramatic, as compared to Luc 1’s conduct.
Finally, there is Luc 3. Like Luc 1 and Luc 2, Luc 3 is initially non-bigoted, and like Luc 2 he feels loyalty to the Catholics who have organized the plot. Although he faces a conflict, he quickly settles on “splitting the difference.” He remains in the middle-of-the-road. He refuses to participate in the massacre, but he does little to combat it or to help the Huguenots. During the massacre, he remains at home, where he prays and grieves for the unhappy Huguenots.
In Luc 3, we recognize a conflict. But we do not see anguish. Like Luc 1, Luc 3 does not make a dramatic turn or ascent. Luc 3 quickly finds self-approbation in sitting out both the slaying and the saving of Huguenots. Thus, his conduct does not show upward vitality. We can respect the fact that he does not buckle to public pressure to endorse and participate in the massacre, but his conduct lacks the valor of Luc 1 and Luc 2 in taking an active stand against the plot. 

Intricacies of virtue
In our ranking, we have placed Luc 3 above Luc 4, the character of Smith’s own telling. One might take issue with that, saying that the ranking should be reversed. To some extent it would depend on the depictions we see or imagine. Smith says that Luc 4 was “so overcome by compassion, as to save some unhappy protestants, whom he thought it is his duty to destroy.” It sounds like the turn was impulsive, a sudden reversal. If Luc 4 started off by aiding the massacre, perhaps even bringing ruin upon some of the Huguenots before being overcome by compassion, we might be more comfortable putting this Luc below Luc 3, who immediately decided not to aid the plot and who cannot be said to have brought active ruin upon any of the Huguenots.
Again, Smith’s point is that our estimation of a person’s conduct or character involves a consideration of the person’s own self-approbation. When a person does not fully approve of his own good actions, that counts against him. Among the five Lucs, full self-approbation is exhibited by Lucs 1, 3, and 5. They do not exhibit upward vitality. It is the even-numbered Lucs, that is, Luc 2 and Luc 4, who display upward vitality. They are becoming. But they lack full self-approbation, at least amidst the process of becoming.
Characters who are depicted as a consummate saint throughout all that we see cannot also deliver the becoming aspect of upward vitality. If Superman could do everything, without constraint, and were impervious to all attack, his action would be dull. That is why it is important to see Superman struggle and grimace, and to make him vulnerable to kryptonite. Even Superman must be depicted as becoming if he is to draw our interest.
The 1942 film Casablanca, directed by Michael Curtiz, provides a canonical contrast between character types. The saint-like character is Victor Laszlo, played by Paul Henreid, while the upwardly vital character is Rick Blaine, played by Humphrey Bogart. Laszlo is eminently admirable throughout, but we do not see him struggle or ascend. The drama is in Rick, who returns to the cause of good represented by Laszlo. The man behind MovieWise says that Rick “has the best character arc of all time.”
How, however, did Laszlo and Luc 1 become so admirable? The answer is upward vitality. Smith writes that even “the wisest and firmest man” in “paroxysms of distress” is obliged “to make a considerable, and even a painful exertion” (148.28). The experience of Laszlo’s upward vitality is not shown in Casablanca. Saints have their dramatic, moving moments. We just do not see them.
Virtue is a dance between upward vitality and self-approbation. And while a film can scarcely show thoroughgoing saintliness and upward vitality in the same character (which do we see in the 2019 film 1917?), a film can, of course, show upward vitality and a concluding self-approbation—a becoming that is completed. In Casablanca, after his anguish and demonstrated upward vitality, Rick, at the end, exhibits a new-found self-approbation.
At the end of another great film, Angels with Dirty Faces (1938), which is also directed by Michael Curtiz, the protagonist, Rocky Sullivan, played by James Cagney, finds upward vitality. Just a moment before the final generous act, resolution and self-approbation are conveyed by this immortal shot:

(Final shot of Rocky Sullivan, played by James Cagney in the 1938 film Angels with Dirty Faces)

The becoming use of what is our own
We speak of upward vitality as the dynamic, becoming aspect of virtue. Smith spoke of “the becoming use of what is our own” (270.10). He did so in defining distributive justice. Each of us distributes his own justly when he makes a becoming use of it. For Smith, becoming corresponds to what “the impartial spectator would be pleased to see” (269.10). The impartial spectator (in the highest sense) is universally benevolent, and so what she finds pleasing is conduct that is good for the whole. Distributive justice is also described as “proper beneficence” (270.10).
Upward vitality suggests something new in conduct, including attitudes and sentiments. We see that in Luc 4, Smith’s “bigoted Roman Catholic.” The becoming involves both the sense of newness and the promise of sustaining the improvement into the future. We sustain it by habituating ourselves to the better conduct. And to do that, one must appreciate it as better, as upward. That’s why self-approbation is the yin to the yang of upward vitality. One must come to comprehend the becoming as upward in the eyes of the impartial spectator, as opposed to downward or unavailing. Although one can become a monster, the adjective becoming naturally connotes upward movement.
According to Aristotle, says Smith in agreement, virtue in a person’s character “consists in the habit of this reasonable moderation, in its having become the customary and usual disposition of the mind” (271.13). Firm habit is established only when the manner of conduct enjoys self-approbation. The upward movement is then confirmed as self-reformation; the becoming is completed.
For now, for the spiral winds on. Self-approbation can turn into self-satisfaction, a false sense of superiority, and spiritual stuntedness: “The proud man is commonly too well contented with himself to think that his character requires any amendment” (258.45). In people of virtue, upward vitality recurs, to stir and to shake. When reading Smith’s poignant picture of the bigoted Roman Catholic, we rediscover upward vitality.

Ali Motamedi is a second-year undergraduate honors student at George Mason University. Ali is an undergraduate fellow at the Mercatus Center and an associate at Americans for Tax Reform.
Daniel B. Klein is professor of economics and JIN Chair at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University. His books include Central Notions of Smithian Liberalism and Smithian Morals

This essay is part of the AdamSmithWorks series Just Sentiments curated by Daniel B. Klein and Erik Matson. New essays will be published on the fourth Wednesday of the month. You can read more about the series in this Speaking of Smith post, "Just Sentiments- Welcome!". Klein and Matson lead the Adam Smith Program in the Department of Economics at George Mason University, in association with the Mercatus Center. In the program, they study big ideas in jurisprudence, politics, ethics, and economics as they were pursued during the original arc of liberalism, especially in the 18th century in Britain.

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Encyclopedia Britannica. 2018. Massacre of Saint Bartholomew’s Day: Definition, Background, & Facts. In Encyclopædia Britannica. Link